Thursday, December 29, 2011


Digital distribution is nothing new. For at least 10 years people have been talking about the decline of physical CD sales, the death of the traditional record store, piracy, and what these things mean for musicians. Usually, the argument goes along the lines of: “digital media = greater piracy = less sales = closure of record stores = greater difficulty in getting label support.” Cue depression.

Sure, times are a-changin’, but artists, and labels, need to adapt. So rather than sit and complain, let’s figure out what opportunities are presenting by this changing landscape.

Physical CDs, in my opinion, are almost, if not already, gone. Even more so for marginal genres such as the one I operate in. That a large percentage of the audience for jazz and improvised music is of a generation that still relates to physical CDs more so than iTunes/iPods doesn’t change the fact that, if we want to broaden our audience, the time has come for artists to save money on printing CDs and use those funds for advertising and touring. For my existing audience, they are dedicated such that they will find my music no matter how it is distributed.

Recording, mixing and mastering has never been cheaper, mainly due to advances in technology, open-source programs such as Gimp make artwork easy and essentially free, and services such as Cdbaby and Bandcamp make digital releases through major distributors cheap and easy.  Now, releasing an album needs traditional major labels no longer. Notice the caveats “traditional” and “major.” Large labels are feeling the pinch as much as anyone, and it seems that their answer is to retreat into ‘pop-jazz.’ Fair enough.

Major chain, Borders’ closure on Lygon Street, Carlton, while Readings (an independent, niche store) continues to thrive right across the road, illustrates that those most concerned with commercialism might be the first to suffer; niche stores will continue to service niche genres, however small.

What about those who prefer the physical product, and/or the audio-philes? Vinyl satisfies both parties, and, though expensive to print, saves boxes of CDs clogging up your house. Download cards (available from the above-mentioned online services) take the place of CDs as a physical object that can be bought at gigs.

Which brings me to my main point: if we are willing to accept that piracy is here to stay, no matter how many times we draw people’s attention to the morality of it all, the thing that becomes most prized is the live performance. It cannot be replicated. The temporarily of music, which is even more pronounced in music involving improvisation, offers a built in guarantee against the live medium being obsolete. Even if the general public are offered more and more reasons to stay at home and watch TV/trawl Youtube/play Xbox, the live performance, extra-musical elements included, seems, at least for now, unreplaceable.

In conclusion, I envisage the priorities for musicians being live performances including touring, financially viable documentation of musical projects with a view to digital distribution and online presence. This article is not intended to be a “death-of-record-stores/labels” post; I quite happily frequent those stores that remain committed to bringing the physical product to the public, especially if the store is dedicated to provide music outside the mainstream. Rather I hope we can begin discussing how modern musicians can engage in the changing landscape of music consumption. Contemporary music invites contemporary solutions.


Further to this are some articles I've appeared in lately:

Jazz planet

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Program notes for final masters recital (now with video)


Kleines harmonisches Labyrinth, Introitus
Johann David Heinichen (formelly BWV 591)

Moro, lasso, al mio duolo, Part 1 (from Madrigals for 5 Voices, Book 6)  –
Carlo Gesualdo

Something We Can Dance To
Marc Hannaford

Fuga a 4 Sogetti, Part 1
J.S. Bach (BWV 1080/19)

Chicken Man
Marc Hannaford

Fuga a 4 Sogetti, Part 2

Anda One
Marc Hannaford

Elliott Carter

Kleines harmonisches Labyrinth, Centrum

La Loriot, Part 1
Oliver Messiaen

We Talk in Jests
Marc Hannaford

Fuga a 4 Sogetti, Part 3

Moro, lasso, al mio duolo, Part 2

La Loriot, Part 2

Fuga a 4 Sogetti, Part 4

Thelonious Monk

Fuga a 4 Sogetti, Part 5


* * *

Marc Hannaford (piano) James Mclean (drums) Sam Pankhurst (double bass)

My recital arranges various musical works into a kind of musical labyrinth, the outer-most “wall” of which is Bach’s final fugue from The Art of Fugue. Heinichen’s Kleines harmonisches Labyrinth symbolises the listener’s journey through the maze, while original pieces and improvisations, as well as works by Gesualdo, Carter, Messiaen, Monk, act as ornamentations.

The inspiration for my arrangement, which, in its dualism between background structure and foreground ornamentation, also recalls Elliott Carter’s compositions that include structural rhythmic frameworks, stems from two sources. The first is literary and the second, musical (but with a literary background).

In his book Bach and the Patterns of Invention, Laurence Dreyfus analyses works by J.S. Bach through “the inverse of synthesis or composition.”[1] By uncovering embedded generative qualities in musical subjects he shows how they and their  transformations play structural (rather than purely developmental) roles: “Within the composition of a thematic idea . . . Bach is especially adept at encoding mechanisms that ensure its elaboration.”[2] The generative nature of Bach’s subjects and their development allow me to regard particular pitches, registers, harmonies and rhythmic figures in BWV 1080/19 as “portals” to other pieces by a variety of composers. The result is an hour-long program that encompasses a variety of pieces into (as I will explain) an incomplete whole. The pieces overlap (reminiscent of Mozart’s Don Giovanni or Charles Ives’s Symphonies), are embedded one in another (similar to sample culture in hip-hop) or are juxtaposed.

Kleines Harmonisches Labyrinth, once thought to be by J.S. Bach, illustrates a journey into, through and out of a labyrinth, with J.S. Bach as the Minotaur. Harmonically, entry to the labyrinth is symbolised by a progression from C major through a series of false cadences to ever distant key centres. The labyrinth’s centre contains a short but highly chromatic fugue containing Bach’s name (also a feature of the final section of BWV 1080/19). Heinichen’s piece points to something outside itself; it is incomplete in that encourages the listener to form associations between the purely musical and the extra musical. Incompleteness creates a mystery (particularly in a space such as a recital where completeness is the norm) that invites active listening. Music that is deliberately incomplete “invite[s] completion from the outside.”[3] That is, the listener is invited to be absorbed by the music, rather than simply absorb it.

Incompleteness pervades my entire program: no piece is given a complete rendition according to the published score except for Bach’s fugue, which was left unfinished by the composer. Labyrinths and incompleteness are entwined; labyrinths must be incomplete to invite our participation. Already “completed” puzzles are closed entities the require nothing more from the outside; they are autonomous.

My time in the Masters of Music (by Research) course at in the Faculty of the VCA and Music has spawned many developments for my playing and thinking. It has, however, included far more germs of ideas that are waiting to be developed. Hence it seems fitting that incompleteness is the central theme for this recital; my degree will show its true value in the coming years, when I have a chance to research, apply and develop the many concepts that are yet to mature.


Dreyfus, Laurence. Bach and the Patterns of Invention: Harvard University Press, 2004.
Leppert, Richard and Susan McClary, ed. Music and Society: The Politics of Composition, Performance and Reception: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

* * *


Donna Coleman

John McCaughey

Simon Barker

Elliott Gyger

Kate Morris

James Mclean

Sam Pankhurst

Emily Thomson

Here's almost all of the video of the performance: the camera cut out a little way toward the end . . .just click on the "watch" tab.

[1] Laurence Dreyfus, Bach and the Patterns of Invention (Harvard University Press, 2004), 10.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Shepherd, John. 1987. Musical and Male Hegemony. In Music and Society: The Politics of Composition, Performance and Reception (Cambridge University Press,1990), ed. Richard and Susan McClary Leppert, 164.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Talking and . . .

I have two announcements for you this fine Saturday afternoon.

The first is the launch of my website. You migth've been reading all these posts and thinking to yourself: "He talks a lot, but what does his music sound like." Very good point. As someone pointed out to me recently: "So many people talk about contemporary issues is music these days, but how many go out and practice what they preach?" Well, ladies and gentleman, I can't be accused of not trying. Please head on over to and check out my music. You can also support my music making by buying some of my releases. Also, if you haven't already, join my mailing list to come and see/talk to/hear me in person.

Secondly, as part of my ongoing interest in artists being socially conscious beings (rather than thinking of themselves as demi-gods a la post-enlightenment) I've decided to take part in Movember: a campagin to raise awareness for men's health. Head on over to to donate to this worthwhile cause and see updates of my mo-progress.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Professionalism in Music (Audio Included)

To me, the great hope is that now these little 8mm video recorders and stuff have come out, and some . . . just people who normally wouldn't make movies are going to be making them. And you know, suddenly, one day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart, you know, and make a beautiful film with her little father's camera recorder. And for once, the so-called professionalism about movies will be destroyed, forever. And it will really become an art form. That's my opinion.[1]

Francis Ford Coppola’s statement highlights, among other things, that conventions associated with professionalism can be constrictive; artists must address how the concept of professionalism relates to their practice to ensure it does not become counterproductive.

Professionalism in music is often tied to expectations regarding instrumental technique, appearance, behaviour and marketing, but is not always considered to be essential to Great Art. John Coltrane says “When I go to hear a man, as long as he conducts himself properly, and moves me with his music, I’m satisfied. If he should happen to smile, I consider it something added to what I have received already. If not, I don’t worry because I know it is not wholly essential to the music.”[2]

At the beginning stages of music employment professionalism usually refers to basic instrumental abilities, social skills and expectations of personal presentation.[3] As a musician evolves, however, the framework of professionalism can become a constrictive set of conventions that stifle creativity. In fact, proficiency within these conventions might even substitute for creativity. Scott Tinkler’s view is not uncommon: “ ‘Yeah, they’re good players, but . . . BORING!!!’ ”[4] Some musicians, such as Paul Bley, are more extreme: “Rehearsals are counterproductive. Repetition is a downward spiral.” Tinkler’s comment refers to instrumental technique, while Bley’s refers to marketing (well-rehearsed bands, in the traditional sense, usually produce music that is consumable; there are definite beginnings and endings, changes between sections happen together, the group moves as a homogenous whole).

Such conventions, to be made productive, might themselves be used as concepts for improvisation. Such explorations, done with integrity, become ironic statements that move beyond the realm of proficiency and into the realm of Art. Irony, in this context, is “an acute awareness . . . of the forces playing upon the self as an improvisation proceeds,”[5] and allows the artist to creatively use what has come before, free from the original context. With this in mind, musicians might identify and question their conventions of music making, opening new creative possibilities.

Here's the performance that accompanied this paper:

I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)


Bahr, Fax and George Hickenlooper and Eleanor Coppola. "Hear of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse." United States of America, 1991.

Berliner, Paul F. Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation, Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994.

DeVito, Chris, ed. Coltrane on Coltrane: The John Coltrane Interviews. First ed. Chicago: A Cappella Books, 2010.

Peters, Gary. The Philosophy of Improvisation. London: The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., 2009.

Zolin, Miriam. "Scott Tinkler in Conversation with Adrian Jackson." Extempore 2 (2009).

[1] Fax and George Hickenlooper and Eleanor Coppola Bahr, "Hear of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse," (United States of America1991), closing lines.

[2] Chris DeVito, ed. Coltrane on Coltrane: The John Coltrane Interviews, First ed. (Chicago: A Cappella Books,2010), 121.

[3] Paul F. Berliner, Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation, Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), 48, 304.

[4] Miriam Zolin, "Scott Tinkler in Conversation with Adrian Jackson," Extempore 2(2009): 27.

[5] Gary Peters, The Philosophy of Improvisation (London: The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., 2009), 68.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Book Review: The Philosophy of Improvisation – Gary Peters


Peters, in his synopsis, points to the fact that “improvisation is usually either lionized as an ecstatic experience of being in the moment or disparaged as the thoughtless recycling of clich├ęs.” This book is written to “elaborate an innovative concept of improvisation”[1] that draws on the work of continental philosophers from Kant to Levinas. This paper will discuss concepts that resonate most strongly with me.


Peters is chair of critical and cultural theory at York St. John University, England. His main area of research “is in the area of continental philosophy and aesthetics from Kant to the present. This often overlaps with certain areas of pedagogical research as well as a range of art practices (from music and the performing arts to visual art and literature). Some recent research and conference papers have also begun to look at issues within the fields of philosophy, art practice and science.”[2] He is also an improvising and composing guitarist that is obviously influenced by bluegrass and country music, but seems to create music that occupies a space outside of traditional genres, as you might expect after reading this book.[3]

The Junkyard Improviser

Peters’ discussion of the junkyard improviser stems from two sources: Walter Benjamin’s vision of Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus (Figure 1), and television shows such as Scrapheap Challenge (U.K.) and Junkyard Wars (U.S.A).

Figure 1: Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus

Both the television shows, where contestants are asked to construct various, functioning objects from items found in a scrapheap in a certain time limit, and the poem by Benjamin provides many points of discussion:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel

looking as though he is about to move away

from something he is fixedly contemplating.

His eyes are staring, his mouth hangs open, his wings are spread.

This is how the angel of history must look.

His face is turned toward the past.

Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one catastrophe,

which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage

hurling it before his feet.

The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead,

and make whole what has been smashed.

But a storm is blowing from Paradise;

it has got caught in his wings with such violence

the angel can no longer close them.

This storm irresistibly propels him

into the future to which his back is turned,

while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.

This storm is what we call progress.[4]

Both the Benjamin and the shows ask the participant (the artist or contestant, respectively) to look backwards to explore how “pile of debris” might be used “into the future to which his back is turned.” The challenge for the improviser is how to take what is already there (Levinas’ ‘Il y a’) from history and use it productively; that is, make it give (Heidegger’s ‘Es Gibt’) something that it previously didn’t.

Peters draws the readers attention to the following predicament for the improviser: “the there and the given are not identical but, rather, a shift dialectical or differential relation that, precisely because of its interminable mobility, demands both obedience and disobedience to ensure one never collapses into the other (the there into the given): the death of improvisation.”[5]

Such a description of the challenge facing the improviser neither ritualises improvisation using ecstasy or inspiration, nor reduces it to a regurgitation of previous materials. Instead it allows for constructive discussion of improvisation as a process.

Negative and Positive Freedom

“Freedom” is a problematic word in the discourse on improvisation in that it is used often as an excuse to not engage to the “scrapheap of history” and is tied to states of ecstasy. Isaiah Berlin, in his Two Concepts of Liberty, provides Peters with the notions of negative and positive liberty: the former is a “freedom-from,” and the latter a “freedom-to.” Negative freedom is a collective ideal in that it “protects the collective by establishing a realm of non-interference that . . . allows the individual the scope and the space for ‘spontaneity, originality, genius [and] mental energy,’ all of which figure large in the world of improvisation.”[6] Positive freedom, on the other hand, has an association with the individual striving, above everyone and everything, for mastery. As Peters points out, many regard this view of freedom as violent and destructive. Drawing on Anthony Braxton’s ambivalence to free-improvisation, the striving individual becomes “the master who would rather enslave you than go unrecognised as a nobody.” It is the interplay between these two types of freedom that, in my opinion, create the gainful tension necessary for engaging improvisation. Negative freedom allows for a collectivity positive freedom cannot, but can result in an aesthetic space too precious for any strong gestures, resulting in overly polite, static improvisations. The brashness of positive freedom brings excitement and momentum to a collective, providing it does not destroy it: in this case the collective demands everyone to engage in positive freedom.

The Origin of the Work

The becoming or emergence of the work “requires the marking of an unmarked space.”[7] A marked space “demands a continuation that is governed by the available mark-making resources, thought both materially and as a history of mimetic patterns,” while the unmarked does not. Marking the space sets in motion the work that (invoking Heidegger) is a dualism between artist and artwork: “The marking of a space . . . sets in train a movement, an emergence or occurrence that, while producing an artwork, is also originary and originating in gesture of the artist too . . . ‘The artist is the origin of the work. The work is the origin of the artist.’ ”[8] What Peters is expressing here is that art is made by artists, each demands the other. Therefore the marking of the unmarked space is not simply a moment but a process that the artist engages in, what Peters calls the “working of the work,”[9] that defines him as well as the works origin.

While the sensus communis “grounds the aesthetic judgement of taste . . . in the free play of human cognition, which is common to all,”[10] it does not account for how a work is produced prior to the judgment of taste; this is done by Kant’s genius who “appears to be able to spontaneously originate artworks untarnished by the history of representation.”[11] Mimesis, acting as reproductive imagination, intermingles with the productive faculties, and sets the scene for the self-reflexive artist beginning of the work. The power of origination, as described by Kant, can be “followed” but not “imitated.” The process of bringing the work into being, and of not letting this work become fixed, is what will be followed, rather than the materials of patterns of mimesis themselves. The works “primary aim is to produce beginnings” that “concerns the gathering of past and future time in the now of the work that must begin again at every moment if its negative and positive freedoms are to be maintained.”[12]

What, then, is required of the artist if, as Kant says, they are unable to imitate genius but all works are also transient and therefore unable to be followed? Peters arrives at the conclusion: and “originary ‘yes!’ ”[13] This affirmation allows the artist to sense their own creativity; Kant speaks of a quickening of “productive imagination and the understanding, a cognitive intensification that is responsible not only for the feeling of pleasure associated with the reception of the work but also for the production of the work out nowhere.”[14]

The artist also makes the originary mark with material from the “scrapheap of history.” Rather than discuss the use of this “scrap” in terms of transcendence or liberation, Peters states that “success for the scrap yard improviser . . . [depends] on the ability to find new and novel ways of inhabiting the old and reviving dead forms through a productive process of reappropriation that promotes improvisation more as a means of salvation and redemption that of creation: re-novation.”[15] “Novel” is a problematic word, as it often used to describe that which Peters wishes to avoid: an endless demand for the “new” that can only end in the contrived, something transcendence and liberation won’t do.

Dialogue and Competition

Theatresports helps Peters highlight the role competition and dialogue play in the working of the work because “although fundamentally competitive, Theatresports is almost exclusively focussed on the work . . . rather than on the players.”[16] Any “fixing” of the work, in the Theatresports model, is a failure; players keep the work moving through improvisation and, sometimes, chance. In this way Theatresports is exemplary in allowing dialogue and competition to coexist productively. Dialogue might be thought of as the sensus communis of the group; together they create a common sense of purpose that allows each member to make decisions. These decisions are also, due to differences that stem from each player, are in competition to one another, not through an ego-based need to control, but through the spontaneous juxtaposition of gestures. The resolution of these differences is necessary to allow the work to continue working, what Keith Johnstone calls “failing gracefully.”[17] Linking failure to productivity returns Peters to the discussions of Benjamin and Heidegger, and the “scrapheap of history.”


Peters cites irony as being the method by which improvisers can “deflate the inflated, mock the portentous, and the reduce the fetishism of ‘spontaneous creation to knockabout anarchy.”[18] Not to be confused with impartiality, irony is “a manner of inhabiting forms, ” rather than a form itself, and “allows fascination to continue, the fascination necessary to draw both producers and receivers to the artwork again and again to there confront what Blanchot describes as the ‘image’ that is neither immediate or mediate but rather the intoxicating distance that holds the Being and being of art apart.”[19] Without irony art falls back into the fixed, producing more and more cultural artifacts that reinforce the “there” without “giving.” Irony is the means by which artists can seriously engage in the tradition without merely imitating.

I find this discussion particularly useful because I am interested in developing a language for improvisation that is both unique but informed by the history of jazz and improvised music. “Imitation . . . assimilation . . . innovation”[20] are oft-used but rather unspecific and unhelpful explanations for engaging in the jazz tradition. How one could go about realising these steps, particularly the processes of assimilation and innovation, is very rarely addressed. Analyses of contemporary improvisations in terms of ironic engagement with history’s “scrapheap” would make these processes clear and provide one way of developing the personal voice informed by tradition that the above mantra propagates.

My previous paper, “Two Views on the Application of the Work Concept” suggested that artists working within the jazz genre run the risk of having their work fixed by the “work concept.” If this is the case, then irony presents a way of avoiding this.


There are other concepts covered by Peters that I have not fully outlined here. They include tragedy, comedy and chance. I chose not to cover these not because they are not fascinating, or well explained, but simply that the above topics are most applicable to my practice. Far from having the “light touch” Ian Buchanan describes in his back-cover blurb, it remains one of the most fascinating, courageous and useful discussions of free improvisation I have come across.


Banjamin, Walter. "Theses on the Philosophy of History." In Illuminations: Schocken, 1969.

Berliner, Paul F. Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation, Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Peters, Gary. "Gary Peters - York St. John University - Academia.Edu."

———. The Philosophy of Improvisation. London: The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., 2009.

[1] Gary Peters, The Philosophy of Improvisation (London: The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., 2009).author's synopsis

[2] ———, "Gary Peters - York St. John University - Academia.Edu,"

[3] The webpage (accessed 30/09/11) contains mp3 files of Peters’ music.

[4] Walter Banjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," in Illuminations (Schocken, 1969).

[5] Peters, The Philosophy of Improvisation, 12.

[6] Ibid., 23.

[7] Ibid., 12.

[8] Ibid., 13.

[9] Ibid., 17.

[10] Ibid., 36.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 38.

[13] Ibid., 39.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 18.

[16] Ibid., 58.

[17] Ibid., 60.

[18] Ibid., 69.

[19] Ibid., 70.

[20] Paul F. Berliner, Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation, Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), 120.quoting Walter Bishop Jr.